Let me start by saying, I hate when I watch a movie adapted from a book BEFORE I read the book, and it’s completely different, so while I’m reading the book, I’m expecting things to happen that never do. If you have any inclination to read this book at some time in the near or distant future, do not, and I repeat, do NOT, watch the Daniel Day Lewis movie first. Talk about artistic liberties, geez.
Disclaimer: I was an English Literature major and considering my schooling isn’t yet so very far behind me, this will probably sound like an essay, but bear with me, I’m working on it!
So, The Last of the Mohicans. It’s always strange to go from reading contemporary literature (the last book I read was Stephen King’s It) to classic early American or British literature. Just the difference in language and pace is staggering. Staged during the French and Indian War in the still unbelievably dense and beautiful American woodlands, the language of this novel follows the style of the Romantics. With stunning descriptions of Nature, the reader inevitably finds herself imagining an America long gone. One in which, as it’s said, a squirrel could cross the entire continental U.S. solely by going from tree to tree. The endlessness of the wilderness, of which the Native populations seem only an extension, is breathtaking and, to a generation soiled by deforestation, global warming, and unbelievably decimated Native populations, nostalgic. However, as much as I enjoy writing from this time period (this novel was first published in 1826), I sometimes feel that the profusion of flowery language somewhat hampers the freedom of my imagination. It’s as though I have to wade through a sea of adjectives before I arrive at the splendid manifestations of Nature previously mentioned.
On a superficial level, it would be easy to accuse Cooper of allowing his characters to fall into rather stereotypical archetypes. At least, that’s the impression I had when I first starting getting into the real action of the story. Following the course of any elementary English class, it’s easy to see that the conflict here is “civilization” vs. nature, the latter of which, again, includes the Native Americans. “Civilization”, of course, referring to the white settlers, and in this case, the “civilized” characteristics of the scout, Chingachgook, and Uncas, with “nature” referring to the wild setting of the action, but more importantly, to the savagery and bloodthirsty actions of the Hurons, but most specifically, of Magua.
The first characters to whom we are introduced (and the characters whom the Daniel Day Lewis movie would have you falsely believing to be the main characters) are Cora and Alice Munro: two young, white women who seem to embody every physical and spiritual virtue one could possibly possess. In a novel where the color of skin plays an enormous part, the virtues of these two young women are constantly compared to the purity of their skin. In fact, most of the “white” characters, with the exception of the execrable French, seem to embody all the most admirable and honorable of traits. Duncan Heyward, the girls’ almost constant companion and protector, epitomizes chivalry and honor and is continually described as an asset to his race. He is even compared to “a knight of ancient chivalry, holding his midnight vigils before the tent of a recaptured princess, whose favor he did not despair of gaining” (150). Even the scout, Hawkeye, who constantly refers to himself as “a man without a cross” is a character of infallible morality and honor. By “man without a cross”, the scout wishes to identify himself as belonging to no one race or religion. As a white man whose parents were killed in an Indian raid and subsequently raised by the Mohicans, he is neither wholly white nor wholly native, but rather a figure common to literature of the time, that of the frontiersman or woodsman. He is caught in a cultural limbo, so to speak.
The difference between the descriptions of the white characters and those of the Natives is stark and obvious, and yet there is a definite division between certain tribes and others. Chingachgook and Uncas, my personal favorite character, are the last two remaining members of the venerable Mohican race, and the latter, the titular character. These two natives are preliminarily described, with rather a tone of surprise in my opinion, as worthy of note for their virtue, honor, and admirable character. At first glance, I felt the descriptions of these two characters was rather patronizing as can be seen from this passage from page 132: “and Uncas stood, fresh and blood-stained from the combat, a calm, and, apparently, an unmoved looker-on, it is true, but with eyes that had already lost their fierceness, and were beaming with a sympathy that elevated him far above the intelligence, and advanced him probably centuries before the practices of his nation.” This description is of Uncas’ reaction to the tearful reunion of the Munro sisters after their near fatal experience with Magua and the Hurons atop the hillock before the surprise interference of Heyward, Hawkeye, and his two Mohican companions. If ever there was a backhanded compliment, this must be it. Throughout this novel, although mostly directed at the Hurons, the Indians are described as unfeeling and coldhearted, literally incapable of the delicacies of sentiment of a “white” heart.
The Hurons, and Magua, or “Le Renard Subtil”, especially, garner the most bleak and dehumanizing descriptions from the author. The memorably gory massacre at the surrender of William Henry is a perfect example. Magua and the other Hurons, who are the slaughterers in this scene, are described as savage, cold, heartless, brutal, and prone to violence. In other words, in almost every sense the polar opposites of the whites, and, to a lesser degree, the two Mohicans. In every instance, they are given derogatory and dehumanizing labels and action to support them. Their separation from the humanity of the whites is shown at the massacre of the women and children at William Henry: “The flow of blood might be likened to the outbreaking of a torrent; and, as the natives became heated and maddened by the sight, many among them even kneeled to the earth, and drank freely, exultingly, hellishly, of the crimson tide” (208). As in this last scene, there is much in the way of Christian distinctions between good and evil in this novel. The women are often compared to angels, Heyward, to a holy knight of old, and, as just seen, the Hurons to hellish imps and devils who delight in bloodshed and misery, even going so far as to call Magua the “Prince of Darkness.”
The issue of color is obvious in this story, but not so obvious is its intention. There are many subtleties of plot that suggest the author may not be as prejudiced as at first glance he may seem. The attitude of the colonizers, and the settlers that came after them (that would be us, faithful reader!), towards the Native populations has always been characterized by a tendency to relegate them to the threatening realm of the “other.” But as the plot unravels and the characters develop further, the definite boundaries between the races begin to blend. Ever present is the scout, who can not easily be placed with either the Whites or the Natives. Always eager to remind the rest that he is “a man without a cross”, Hawkeye serves as a kind of bridge between the two, being neither wholly separate nor wholly a part of either one. Also, although very subtly hinted at, there seems to be an attraction between the arguable hero of the story, Uncas, and Cora. At the end, during the funeral for the two (which is my favorite part of the story owing to the beauty of the scene), the mourners allude to the fact that Uncas had eyes for none of the Delaware women but sacrificed himself to avenge Cora’s death, and they sing of their meeting in the Happy Hunting Grounds. Always a knotty issue, race is, but I have to argue that Cooper was much more for equality of the races, although he definitely had an idea of Bad Indian vs. Good Indian.
Did I make this sound like a literature essay? I think I did, and I apologize. Sometimes it’s hard to separate our training from our creative expression, isn’t it, Best Beloved? In any case, I very much enjoyed this book, and greatly disliked the Daniel Day Lewis movie. I hate when producers take classic novels and tweak the plot in order to Hollywood-ize it. I mean, a love triangle between the Scout, Cora, and Heyward? Totally uncalled for. I do, however, have the silent black and white version on my Netflix queue and will put a mini-review of that on here once I’ve seen it.
Coming soon: The food part of The Last of the Mohicans. The only items of food mentioned in the novel were spruce beer, venison, dried bear’s meat, and something called succotash, which is apparently a dish composed of cracked corn and beans. Not your average run-of-the-mill grocery store items, eh? In any case, I will see what I can do, but it probably won’t be happening till after Christmas, so stay tuned and happy holidays!